Armada Books, $3.99, ISBN 0-440-91120-6
JH Brennan has created a charming new gamebook series in Grailquest if the first gamebook, The Castle of Darkness, is anything to go by. This is almost a parody of a typical gamebook, laced with humor and wit that pokes fun at itself as much as at gamebooks in general.
You play an ordinary kid who is drawn back to King Arthur’s time by his trusty magician, Merlin. Merlin draws you into the body of Pip, a typical farm lad who doesn’t care for anything beyond idling away, daydreaming of joining the Knights of the Round Table, and talking to the chickens until you show up. In this one, the Wizard Ansalom, the plague of the good people of Glastonbury, has pulled off a coup. After the usual rounds of blighting corns and kidnapping livestock, he has managed to kidnap Queen Guinevere from the castle and lock her up in his Dark Castle. The other Knights all of a sudden have other things to do, so Merlin, who has foreseen the kidnapping, offers up you as the person who would rescue the Queen.
Armed with the talking Mini-me version of Excalibur, called Excalibur, Jr or “EJ” for short, as well as some ridiculously overpowered magic spells courtesy of Merlin, you are set to go to where no knights have ever gone before. Naturally, the Dark Castle is full of smelly villains, creepy beasts, and deadly traps to make your visit a most eventful one.
The gameplay system uses dice – the usual, really. But the most amusing difference here is that Mr Brennan allows you to fudge things up. Not happy with your Life Points? Well, roll again then, up to three times! Don’t feel like fighting because your Life Points are precariously low? You can actually bribe the villains with any treasures you have found, although it gets really silly when you are allowed to bribe monsters and animals off with gold. Bribes range from 100 to 10,000 Gold Pieces, so it’s not always a viable option if you are short on dough. A successful bribe roll means that you can proceed as if you have vanquished the opponent. Not only, you can also try to befriend the opponent, with the same effect, although this is tougher to pull off than bribing.
As for the overpowered Firefinger Lightning Bolts and Fireballs spells, they are there for a reason: the game design is as broken as the damage you can do with these spells, heh. If you play your cards right and luck is on your side, you can actually take down the Wizard Ansalom in two attack rounds, but getting there is pretty difficult. You really need to make a map and note down the paragraph numbers corresponding to each room, because you have to backtrack after exploring the first level of the Dark Castle in order to proceed to the second level. And discovering the secret door to the second level isn’t easy. But despite the seeming odds against you, you shouldn’t forget that you have some overpowered spells and weapons at your disposal as well! This adventure is a munchkin’s dream come true.
The best thing about this gamebook is the humor. This one pokes fun at gamebook conventions, often remarking of the absurdity of its own dungeon crawl situations, that you will have a jolly good time laughing yourself silly. From a silly vampire that insists on being a poet to the whole absurdity that is Merlin the skirt-chasing curmudgeon, this one is a laugh-per-turn affair. The humor turns an otherwise silly campaign into the Monty Python of gamebooks.
If you prefer a sober and serious campaign, this one clearly isn’t for you. But if you want to sit back and relax – and seriously, cheating is recommended here because you will appreciate the whole hilarious absurdity that is The Castle of Darkness if you flip paragraphs at random to laugh at everything, even scenes where you die, as if you play this one straight, you’d miss out on most of the fun. All things considered, I am giving this cute little campaign four oogies, if only because of how ridiculously entertaining it is.